Deep Grace Ekka knows what a medal in a major international tournament feels like around her neck. The 28-year-old, who has been playing for India for just over a decade, was part of the teams that won the 2017 Asia Cup and the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy. She has also won two Asian Games medals, silver in 2018 and bronze in 2014, two bronze medals at the Asia Cup in 2013 and this year in Muscat and two silvers at the Asian Champions Trophy in 2013 and 2018. To top this all off, she was one of the senior members of the Indian team that missed out on a first Olympic medal by a whisker at Tokyo 2020.
She wants more though, and for those in the Indian women’s hockey team who are hungry for medals, it is harvesting time. India play their first 2022 World Cup match in the Netherlands from Friday after which their campaign in the 2022 Commonwealth Games starts on July 29.
Grace, who is vice-captain of the team, said that it is a combination of missed chances and an opportunity to make history that is egging the players on. “We haven’t even won a single World Cup medal yet. Last time we had lost in the quarter-finals. So we are hungry for a medal here and we have to be working every minute towards it,” Grace told HindustanTimes.com.
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India are placed in Pool B along with England, New Zealand and China. “We all want to finish on the podium. That is not something that just comes because we wish for it, we have to work hard for that, give our everything in every match. We won’t be thinking too far ahead. Our first match is against England and so our focus will be only on that and just match by match,” she said.
England are the only team placed above them in the world rankings (from the group) and it is them that India face in their first match on Friday. But Grace says that rankings don’t matter much nowadays in a big tournament. “Nowadays what has happened is that the team that plays better on that particular day wins. It is not like how it was before where we would feel we can’t play simply because we have an inferior ranking. Every team’s mindset has changed.
“They have great players and yes, they are ranked above us. But we are very quick in attack, we have very speedy strikers. So we are right now focussing on how to break their movements. We have lost some very close matches to them, even in the Olympics we lost the bronze medal match against Great Britain. That is all there in our minds but it is not that we can’t beat them,” she said.
India’s forwards have been in good form in the Pro League matches they played before the World Cup. Vandana Katariya, Lalremsiami, Navneet Kaur and Sharmila Devi have all put the ball past the goalie on a number of occassions and the emergence of Salima Tete has given the midfield a new zeal. All this means that Grace and the rest of her team mates can be quietly confident of their chances at the World Cup despite the absence of talismanic striker Rani Rampal. While an injury is what has kept Rani out, there are indications that India have found a way to play without her, which in itself is a big statement considering just how influential the former India captain was on her day.
“She is a great player, never really lost possession from her position. But players who have come in her place are doing really well. We do miss her a bit but that is not in our hands, that is in the hands of the coaches and the support staff. Even we are here now and tomorrow we might not be, that is completely out of our hands. But the way we play right now, we won’t miss one player. Everyone is putting in the same amount of hard work,” said Grace.
Grace sees the position of vice-captain as only a formality. “As a senior player I already have a certain responsibility but in reality, everybody runs this team. There is nothing different for me now that I am vice-captain. We all stay together and that always feels good. We share any problems we have with each other,” she said.
The World Cup will also mark India’s first major tournament under former Netherlands defender Janneke Schopman, who took over as head coach after Sjoerd Marijne’s departure post the Tokyo Olympics. Schopman knew the team well when she took over – she had been analytical coach in Marijne’s staff before being elevated.
Grace said that while Schopman has had a positive effect on the whole team, the latter’s status as a former defender was especially helpful for her.
“Janneke makes us focus on the small things as well, speed, one to one passes. She believes in us a lot and makes us believe in ourselves,” said Grace.
“She herself was a great player and she has some very high standards for her team. She was a great defender and that is good for us. She taught us how to defend outside the D. We used to sit back while defending but she has taught us how to rush out and tackle. Those techniques we have learnt from her.”
“I can feel the difference myself. I used to throw the stick a lot (while tackling). I used to lose control by doing that and so players used to get past me quite easily. She has taught me a way to negate.”
India finished third in the Pro League only behind Netherlands and Argentina, the Olympic gold and silver medallists. Grace believes that this result and the sheer number of matches they got to play will hold them in good stead going into the World Cup.
“I am very confident that this time we will do something special in this tournament. Before the Olympics we didn’t really get to play too much. But we got to play the Pro League this time before the World Cup. Playing internationals like this against the big teams is always a great experience. For us it is a great thing that we got to play these games before the World Cup. We were able to find out weaknesses and mistakes, some of which we have managed to get over and some we are working on. I think we are now ready to play the World Cup,” said Grace.